Exit Strategy

Bruce’s comment on the Bull thread is illustrative of a good point about the program approach to ministry:

My admittedly limited experience with Lifeteen is that it seemed to have no exit into adulthood in the parish. It kept folks until they were thirty.

One often hears RCIA people protest, “It’s a process, not a program.” Actually, RCIA is neither–it’s a liturgical rite. “Initiation” is the process. The “R” designates it as liturgy. Everything builds from the rites, assuming you’re doing a proper job with it.

People who do “programs” like LifeTeen or Vacation Bible School or JustFaith or Whole Parish Catechesis don’t always facilitate the connection between a very laudable focus on one aspect of church life and the greater picture of the Church–including the needs of individual believers to develop and grow as disciples. My view is that these praiseworthy approaches are ideally situated in a larger context.

An analogy. I go to a physical therapist to heal and strengthen a case of achilles tendonitis. When I go, I don’t neglect a healthy diet. I continue with exercises outside of my sessions. There is an end to the PT, at which point, I incorporate the work on my leg and foot into my routines on exercise.

RCIA is like this. A person is initiated into the Catholic Church. Once the rites are completed, the neophyte has been prepared to be involved in the parish and the wider Church according to her or his gifts: singing in the choir, feeding the poor, tutoring students, counting the Sunday collection–whatever is appropriate. Neophytes don’t ordinarily all remain in an ever-growing RCIA team and continue chumming exclusively with the other candidates, the sponsors, and all. Sure, on occasion, the neophyte will discern a role in welcoming new believers. Sometimes a person who has had a transformative experience in physical therapy will herself or himself decide to enter the profession. And sometimes a LifeTeen person will have had a similar transformative experience and be inspired to help others along the way. But these are exceptions to the rule.

The problem with some ministries and some approaches to them is that there is no exit strategy. My parish is in the middle of planning a Summer Bible School for kids. But we are trying to situate this effort in a greater context. Liturgy of the Hours, not just morning icebreakers, are part of the experience. We also have an afternoon session for older kids: to reflect on the Scriptures and to get involved in service opportunities. We also have a family event on the last night: a special Mass and a community meal. Unlike most all programmed Bible camps, some of the songs will be the liturgical ones we sing at Mass. We strove, in planning this effort, to ensure connections with liturgy, with charity and justice, and with the community life of the parish.

As for the successes and failures of LifeTeen, that largely depends on the wisdom of the pastor and youth minister. Some parishes are better at it than others. The latter see LifeTeen as a program to buy to occupy the time and energy of young people. I can understand it. Working with teens is very demanding. Anything that makes it easier can be very attractive to clergy. And many youth ministers are happy enough to plug kids into an already-designed program.

Real ministry, however, looks to the big picture. In my last parish, pastors, youth ministers, staff, teens, and parents largely rejected the notion of installing LifeTeen. We didn’t need it. High school-aged parishioners were invited into various liturgical ministries at all the Masses. They sang in the ensemble and choir–there was very little interest in a special group. They preferred to serve in Communion ministry or as lectors at the same liturgy their family usually attended. They got involved in service projects through the mainstream service and justice structures: they fed the poor with peers and family, they went on service trips to Guatemala with peers and family. These kids–the ones who were involved–will go off to college and their new parishes with an expectation of being involved in parish life, not exclusively a youth ministry.

I see many young people at the student center who have something of an adjustment to make. We register them as independent parishioners. While we do have special programs that appeal to college students, they are also deeply involved as catechists (so much so that our DRE cannot conduct regular classes for parish children during break times or finals week), in liturgical ministry, and they work side by side with parishioners in any number of outreach efforts to the poor of our area.

This is the way it should be.

Getting back to LifeTeen, I see it as a potentially useful tool. But it should be one approach among many. For it to work, LifeTeen would need a scattering of regular parishioners prepared to invite young people to expand their horizons and get involved in the parish. Of course, some parishes employ LifeTeen just to plant adolescents in a ghetto. They’ve made the investment of resources–what the budget will bear. Now they want ministry to youth to be outsourced, as it were. It’s some variation of seeing children, but not hearing them.

Good parishes find a way of sewing LifeTeen into the larger fabric of parish life. In these situations, I’m sure it works well: not only evangelizing youth into the Catholic faith, but incorporating them into the Body of Christ. But it takes work. And wisdom.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Exit Strategy

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    People who think that teens/tweens will actually LIKE attending worship services designed to bore the hell out of most adults are more naive than I think they are.

    In time these kids to mature to the point that they will either seek out a parish liturgy that deals with them as adults, or will walk away as so many do now.

    But they need the chance to grow spiritually before they are required to suffer the lamness that is most Catholic liturgy in most parishes.

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